Asia trip tests Obama's postelection global clout
His influence at home quickly fading, President Obama is looking east to China, the opening stop of a three-country tour that will test his ability to play a commanding role on the world stage during his final two years in office.
Once treated like a global superstar, Obama arrived Monday in Beijing under far different circumstances, with his most powerful days behind him.
At home, Republicans are still rejoicing at having pummeled Obama's political party in the midterm elections, relegating Democrats to the minority in both chambers of Congress. His counterparts in Asia surely have noticed.
Upon his arrival in the Chinese capital, Obama stepped off Air Force One and onto a red carpet, where an honor guard of dozens lined his path. He greeted Chinese officials before being whisked into his waiting limousine.
The president will give a speech Monday about U.S. ties to Asia at a high-level Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. He'll also join key Asian leaders for dinner before taking in a performance and fireworks at the Beijing National Aquatics Center. During his three days in China, Obama will also meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The leaders of the world's two largest economies will address reporters before the state visit draws to a close Wednesday and Obama flies to Myanmar.
The trip marks one of Obama's final opportunities to deliver on his goal to amplify U.S. influence in Asia. In China, Myanmar and Australia, leaders will be rendering judgment on whether Obama's lofty ambitions in Asia-Pacific have been sidetracked by festering crises in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
"This is going to be a tough trip for the president," said Ernest Bower, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said Asian leaders were viewing Obama's trip with a key question in mind: Who is Barack Obama after the midterm elections?
"They'll be trying to discern whether he has the commitment and political capital to follow through," Bower said.
Even before the election, Obama's commitment to the region and his ability to boost U.S. clout there was in doubt in many capitals.
U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea have pressed for a greater American presence, partly to counter China's growing influence. Yet Obama's mission against the Islamic State group and his government's Ebola response have diverted U.S. military and financial resources elsewhere.
"The president remains deeply committed to his Asia rebalancing strategy, and its implementation will remain a top priority throughout the second term," said Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice.
U.S. presidents often immerse themselves in foreign affairs during their last years in office, when the focus on the next presidential race saps the energy from their own domestic efforts. In the wake of last week's elections, White House officials spoke optimistically about Obama's prospects for clinching trade deals in Asia and elsewhere now that Republicans are set to control Congress.
Under Obama, U.S. trade negotiators for years have been pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade pact being negotiated with 11 nations. The talks have repeatedly blown past their deadlines, and other nations have been wary about Obama's ability to push an eventual deal through Congress, where Democrats have been sensitive to the concerns of labor unions.
But with Republicans in charge, Obama's prospects may have improved, so the argument goes. Republicans tend to support trade deals as a way to boost the U.S. economy, and GOP leaders have spoken positively about giving Obama so-called "fast track" approval that would subject the final deal to an up-or-down vote, preventing last-minute amendments that could sink the whole deal.
China's not part of the talks, and is pursuing its own free trade deals in the region. What's more, Chinese leaders have viewed Obama's focus on Asia with suspicion, fearing an attempt to contain China's growth and influence in the region.
In a sign of the political climate facing Obama in China, state-run media have been mocking him in the days before his visit.
"Obama always utters 'Yes, we can,' which led to the high expectations people had for him," read an editorial in the English-language Global Times. "But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters. U.S. society has grown tired of his banality."
Another reminder of the tensions in the region came hours before Obama left on Saturday when North Korea released two American detainees after Obama's spy chief made a secret mission to Pyongyang to secure their release.
In his meetings with Xi, Obama also plans to address human rights issues, officials said, including the treatment of journalists as well as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that erupted in September to the dismay of Chinese officials. Climate change — a key concern in smog-filled Beijing — and China's aggressive behavior toward its neighbors are also on Obama's agenda.
Douglas Paal, who headed Asia policy under President George W. Bush at the National Security Council, said Chinese leaders have signaled that this visit will determine whether to keep working with Obama or just wait him out.
"If he comes in and tries to be tough with them, they'll see that as putting a period on cooperation with Obama," said Paal. He added, "They see Hillary Clinton coming."